It has been almost 80 days since we retreated into the splendid isolation of our rural sanctuary – leaving only to go shopping into town before quickly returning home. That is twice the length of a classic quarantine (which was forty days. The clue is in the name!). In all that time we have pretty much only interacted with the four other people living in the house, the two dogs, one cat and hundreds of wild birds that populate the property. When you live in the countryside going from 2km to 5km does not change much. We still can’t go to the beach, or visit friends. Our world has shrunk to a large period house on 2.5 acres. So have our daily concerns. The house, the garden, and what we are going to have for dinner are our main focus. Watering the vegetable patch is my only obligation. Going into town to shop, is our only distraction in the real world. This is the new normal. The Garda checkpoint became so familiar, that the first day it was gone; it felt strange to just drive straight through the crossroads at Ballinascarthy. I felt like I should stop, or at least slow down and tell someone where I was going.
Though real contact with the outside world pretty much stopped, virtual contact mushroomed until I felt that there were not enough hours in the day to keep up with all the yoga, Zumba, dance, meditation, drawing, and other self-improvement classes on offer; not to mention the hundreds of hours of funny videos, Tik-Tok memes, special events, livestreamed concerts and Netflix originals on offer every day, and all night. In fact, I had to do a major cull of the Internet events I attend, so as not to spend this entire pandemic in cyberspace, never leaving my screen, much less venturing outside.
It was, therefore with great anticipation that I looked forward to better days when we might go further afield and start picking up whatever shreds were left of our former life in the community. To my delight, the first week we decided to venture back into the Friday market was also a gloriously sunny, hot day. So, it was a real surprise to find that, along with the anticipation, I felt a distinct shiver of trepidation…What was this? Like the Garda checkpoint, I had got used to not seeing anyone. I felt safe at home. The policeman was in my head, telling me that I needed to have a good reason to be leaving. The underlying anxiety created by wearing facemasks, keeping 2m apart, washing hands, and checking on the daily death toll had impacted on my sense of security outside the confines of my property. After only 80 days of isolation I was becoming institutionalised. It was time to venture forth.
Over the course of two hours, I met more people in the market than I had met over the past two months. As we exchanged what our new normal was (staying 2m apart, of course), it became clear to me that we may all be in this together, but what ‘this’ is varies widely. To paraphrase an Internet meme: We are all being hit by the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. Out in our splendid rural isolation, we were living some 19th century genteel narrative. A Gourmet Armageddon if you will; created by five adults with nothing better to do with their talents and resources than to whip up glorious meals, coupled with the terrific range of products offered by West Cork shops. Compare that to my friend who has sewed over one thousand masks last month, while caring for her elderly father. She has been cooking large casserole meals that she can heat up over two or three days, and spends her weekends, shopping, cleaning and cooking for her Dad. She is exhausted, while I have adopted the siesta as a regular part of the day.
I did meet friends, who like us, have finally found the time to do all those little jobs you never have the time to finish: that doorknob, this crack in the window, those flower beds…They do, however, tend to be people who have no children, or whose children are grown. Those with school age children have a wildness in their eyes from months of being on duty 24/7 with housework, homework, child care, and lockdown entertainments. As one harried mother told me “Can you believe I’m doing Algebra again? But that’s not the worse of it – the worse is the constant feeding. Kids want to eat all day…” Far from finally having the time to read a long novel, or finish a DIY project, those with children are longing for some real self-isolation. Then there are those poor families whose parents are working remotely, or outside the home with no childcare in sight. Making do has never been more like a game of Tetris, as they try and fit in work time, playtime, computer time, outdoor time, and sleeping.
I am looking forward to June 8 when (fingers crossed) the travel limit extends to 20km, giving us access to the coast, and opening our home to friends who can finally come over and hang out in the garden. I can’t wait to show off the newly painted benches, which I will place two metres away from each other.
If you are wondering why I have made no mention of the violence, protests, Covid 19 deaths and other horrors happening out there – it is intentional. In my splendid isolation I choose, for now, to refuse to accept that this too is a part of the new normal. Stay strong. Stay safe. See you after June 8.